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Age UK fights loneliness among older people with a telephone befriending service

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Nearly 1.2 million older people in the UK say they’re chronically lonely. Roughly 3.9 million say that TV is their main form of company. And some 200,000 haven’t had a conversation with a friend or family member in more than a month.

London-based charity Age UK set out to reduce chronic loneliness in 2005 with its Call in Time service. Once a week for 30 minutes, Call in Time connected older people with volunteers over the phone, providing companionship, advice, and support to the people who needed it most.

Although Call in Time had helped thousands of people, the service’s manual call system was labor intensive and couldn’t scale to reach the number of people Age UK wanted to help. It plateaued at 3,500 calls per month—a small portion of what Age UK describes as a public health crisis. Age UK wanted a new technology infrastructure to vet volunteers faster and make thousands of additional calls every week, without increasing the staff’s workload.

Building the New Call in Time

“We needed something big to be able to help those millions of people,” says Richard Holland, Solutions Architect at Age UK. To meet this challenge, Richard designed a more scalable, software powered solution for Call in Time. To launch it, Age UK partnered with Reason Digital, a social enterprise that works on digital solutions to social challenges.

The first step was to build a new web app for sign-ins. Age UK’s previous system vetted volunteers manually. The new app does much of that work automatically. Similar to an online dating profile, the app matches volunteers and older people, known as Call in Time members, based on common interests, like a shared hometown or musical genre.

Age UK also streamlined signup by eliminating part of the screening process required when exchanging phone numbers between volunteers and members. Using Twilio, Age UK is able to connect calls between people without actually exchanging their numbers. This automation reduces friction in the sign-up journey, because volunteers don’t have to provide as much information. It also adds a layer of safety and security to both parties on the calls.

With their new vetting process, Age UK can onboard volunteers much faster than before. But perhaps even better, their updated Call in Time application enables Age UK to automate the call process itself and scale call volume on demand.

As Richard describes, “our platform handles the scheduling of calls, checks when calls are meant to happen and fires out events and triggers. These go out to Twilio to say ‘initiate this call’. First, the volunteer is called; they pick up, receive a recorded message, press 1 and are placed in a conference call. The process is repeated with the Call in Time member. The call is recorded by Twilio for safeguarding and once the call is over, it is marked as complete in our system.”

Another key to the system’s scalability is its serverless architecture. Prior to the cloud, organizations had to rent servers big enough to handle their largest call spikes, even if the spike only lasted a half hour once a week. That extra capacity can add substantial cost. With the Twilio and AWS Lambda serverless architecture Age UK employed, the system scales on demand, while saving Age UK money.

Making Friends and Providing Care, at Scale

After an advertising blitz, Age UK recruited 2,500 volunteers within a few weeks. “We had to stop, because we had too many people,” Richard says. “It’s a good position to be in.” Age UK’s current focus is getting more older people signed up as Call in Time members, so they can take full advantage of Call in Time’s increased call capacity.

Age UK’s plans for the revamped Call in Time service are impressive. Whereas the old system could handle 3,500 calls per month, Age UK is working to scale the new system to 10,000 calls per week. In no small part, this growth is enabled by designing the service around the communication channels their members prefer.

“What was really important for us is that Call in Time would be very easy for an older person to join,” explains Richard. “It’s all done over a landline – they don’t need an internet connection, they don’t need to use a smartphone. As long as they’ve got a landline, we can reach them, which works really well. We regularly see the difference this makes to members and, in many cases, it’s the start of a very genuine friendship between members and volunteers.”

Indeed, many of the Call in Time connections evolve into close friendships, with both parties anticipating the weekly 30-minute conversations. Barbara, a Call in Time member, explains, “That regular, reliable call was a godsend to me… Mel is a very special friend.”

Call in Time has won numerous awards for Age UK’s innovative approach to connecting new friends. To date, plaudits include 2 BIMA Awards for Product & Service Design: Conscience and Advance Award for Conscience, the UXUK Award for Best Innovation, the Third Sector Award for Breakthrough of the Year, and the Northern Digital Award for Best Digital Tool or Software.

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